Seeds of change

18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Num. 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Ps. 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

This week we enjoyed a three-day retreat with MCC staff from Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, sharing program updates, conversation and lots of food; and taking a day trip to Mt. Nebo and Madaba.

Cindy with Suzi Khoury at Mt. Nebo (photo by Willy Stell)

Cindy has begun teaching a weekly English course for Iraqi children living in Amman. She has two groups – a class of 8 to 10-year-olds and a second class of 11 to 14-year-olds.

The UNHCR said this week that the number of Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey could reach 700,000 by the end of 2012, creating stress on host countries like Jordan. An additional 1.5 to 2.0 million Syrians are internally displaced.

The situation at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan continues to be tense due to poor living conditions. The UNHCR is beginning to hire Syrian refugees to help build camp infrastructure and assist with camp operations like cooking.

One of many demonstrations in Amman during the past 18 months (Photo by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images)

All the while, regular protests continue in Jordan, calling for constitutional reforms.

Rather than engaging in face-to-face conversations that could help resolve thorny political differences, U.S. President Barak Obama, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all gave televised speeches this week at the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, issuing threats, counter-threats and drawing red lines.

The Common Lectionary readings focus on earnest appeals to God.

In the Old Testament reading, Moses is fed up with the complaints of the Israelites. “Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” Moses himself complains to God. (Num. 11:11) “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (v.14) God responds by providing 70 persons to assist Moses.

MCC Middle East staff at Mt. Nebo, looking over the Jordan Valley (photo by Willy Stell)

The psalmist appeals, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14)

Using Elijah as an example, the Apostle James writes, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16b). James urges prayer for those who are suffering (v.13), sick (v.14) and in need of confession (v.15).

Below is the devotional reflection that Daryl shared at the MCC retreat, Sept. 25.

It is a time of high anxiety in the region. So much seems uncertain. Everything feels fragile. It is not difficult to imagine a worst-case scenario for the region:

  • Fighting in Syria will get worse. The violence will spill into Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Jordan along with tens of thousands of additional refugees.
  • Israel will annex Area C in the West Bank and will continue to expand settlements. A third Palestinian Intifada will be violent.
  • Israel, with U.S. backing, will attack Iran’s nuclear sites. Iran will retaliate in a way that has broad repercussions for the region.

Even though we pray and work for it, we are probably much more skeptical about the possibilities of a best case scenario – at least not anytime soon:

  • The fighting stops in Syria. The refugees return home. There is no retaliation against Alawites or Christians for their support of the Assad regime. The international community provides a mass infusion of resources so that houses can be rebuilt and cities restored.
  • New governments in the region begin to function well and represent the diverse religious and ethnic groups in each country.
  • Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza; and recognizes the right of return for refugees.

Jordan Summer Peacebuilding Institute alumni were together for lunch recently. Someone commented that the hard work of peacebuilding can be undone in a moment’s notice. What takes years to build can be destroyed overnight. As we have seen in Syria during the past 18 months, how quickly things can unravel once the violence begins and the trust is broken.

Women in Wadi Araba plant high-quality seeds in a MCC-supported project

What difference does our work make against such great odds? I find comfort in the biblical principle that we reap what we sow. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,” Paul writes, “for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” (Galatians 6:7-8)

We often focus on the judgment aspects of this principle: If you sow bad things you will reap bad things. If you sow violence you will reap violence. Indeed, the Bible says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And we can see many examples – individual or corporate – where this holds true:

  • In the region, dictators are reaping the consequences of years of oppressive policies and practices.
  • The United States is clearly beginning to reap consequences of years of military, economic and cultural domination.

While it is true that God is gracious, it is also true that there are consequences for bad behaviors. Sometimes it takes years before those consequences manifest themselves, but they will eventually do so.

Seedlings grow inside a greenhouse in Wadi Araba

But I’d like to focus on the positive aspects of this biblical principle. That is, to emphasize that, if we sow good things and if we cultivate good soil, we will reap good things. James writes: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:18).

It is true that we don’t know how long it will take for these good seeds to grow – perhaps a year, perhaps a decade, perhaps a century, perhaps a millennium – but the promise is that they will grow and bear fruit.

Apparently Paul knew that it would be easy to grow impatient. For in the verse after his reminder that we reap what we sow, he writes: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9).

MCC Jordan program coordinator Nada Zabaneh inspects cucumbers grown in Wadi Araba

Jesus told a number of parables that remind us of the challenges of planting good seeds and waiting for them to bear fruit.

Bad seeds grow side-by-side with the good.  Indeed it seems like weeds grow much faster than the good seeds. Our temptation is to get distracted, to focus on uprooting the bad seeds rather than on nurturing the good seeds.

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”9But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ (Matthew 13:24-30)

The good seeds are often the smallest and we doubt whether they will actually grow and produce substantial crops.

He put before them another parable:  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ (Matthew 13:31-32)

The growth of seeds is a mystery. We can’t explain or control their growth and so we become discouraged and disheartened.

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Mark 4:26-29)

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9). Let us continue planting and watering seeds of justice and mercy and peace.

In his popular hymn, “You are salt for the earth” Marty Haugen writes: You are a seed of the word, O people, bring forth the kingdom of God! Seeds of mercy and seeds of justice, grow in the kingdom of God! Brink forth the kingdom of mercy, bring forth the kingdom of peace. Bring forth the kingdom of justice, bring forth the city of God!

The late Archbishop Oscar Romero summed it up this way before he was assassinated in El Salvador:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

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